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Thoreau on Democracy and Moral Responsibility

January 15, 2010

Via the Anti-Democracy Agenda, I see an interesting paper from Leigh Kathryn Jenco suggesting Thoreau hammered out a democraphobic political philosophy in his transcendental cabin at Walden. From the abstract:

Most commentators see Henry David Thoreau’s political essays as an endorsement of liberal democracy, but this essay holds that Thoreau’s critique of majoritarianism and his model of civil disobedience may intend something much more radical: when his criticisms of representative democracy are articulated in more formal terms of political and moral obligation, it becomes clear that the theory and practice of democracy fundamentally conflict with Thoreau’s conviction in moral autonomy and conscientious action. His critical examination of the way in which a democratic state threatens the commitments that facilitate and give meaning to the practice of morality intends to reorient the focus of politics, away from institutions and toward the people such institutions were ostensibly in place to serve. His critique stands as a warning that becoming complacent about democracy will inhibit the search for better (perhaps more liberal) ways to organize political life.

You can find Jenco’s whole paper here. Our bent in these pages tends to stress the consequentialist arguments in favor of a market in governance. But we are moral pluralists. It’s good to keep in mind that there are rights-based and virtue-based arguments that lead in this direction as well, if you care about that sort of academic complication.

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